It Takes Just One Teacher To Change Your Life


It Takes Just One Teacher To Change Your Life

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

The memory of Teachers’ Day has a particular smell, a happy mixture of new clothes, fresh flowers, and chocolates. It also has a peculiar sound: Of laughter ringing through the air, an over-enthusiastic “Good morning, teacher” greeting, and applause. Most memories of Teachers’ Day and teachers are attached to school and the multitude of teachers who have touched our lives

My memory is attached to the one teacher who saw something in me that no one did. My “To Sir, With Love” hero is my tuition teacher who taught me English and History.

Back in school, as my elder sisters pursued engineering, my family hoped that I’d take up medicine – but science held little appeal for me. But I’d never speak about it.

One day, my tuition teacher Mrs Sujata Menon asked me to bring my mother to class. It freaked me out; I expected her to complain about how my frequent giggles disrupted the other students and that I skipped homework more times than was acceptable. That afternoon, as I stood shaking in my sandals, my teacher told my mum something that would change my life. She said that I had an intuitive understanding of the English language; she spoke about how I took to English like a fish takes to water. She sold to my mother a talent I didn’t know I had.

For the first time, I wasn’t afraid to be smart, and she often stayed after school to work with me.

My mother, someone who held a PhD in Urdu literature, took it as a compliment and ran with it. Even the little nudge and pressure I felt toward pursuing medicine was lifted. Both my tuition teacher and my mother encouraged me, and diligently read all the essays and passages I wrote. They understood my mediocre grades and lack of interest in some other subjects. All my mother really expected from me was to excel in English – which I did.

And today, I find myself in this beautiful place in life where I tell stories for a living. All because one teacher paid attention, and decided to act upon it, setting in motion life’s dominoes that eventually determine the course of your path. I often think about if she hadn’t seen the latent love I had for the language and my aptitude for it, I’d possibly be an engineer with an MBA degree stuck at a dead-end nine-to-five management job with no idea about Shakespeare or Shelley.

The theme of my story, then, is not exclusively mine. It belongs as much to my tuition teacher. It’s a demonstration of the immense power teachers wield in fulfilling the lives of their students.

In her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou points out the tremendous influence her teacher, a certain Mrs Bertha Flowers, had on her brothers and her. Mrs Flowers not only shared books with Angelou but also encouraged her to give voice to her ideas.

To Angelou’s Mrs Flowers, was Oprah’s Mrs Duncan. About the teacher, Oprah writes, “One of the defining moments of my life came in fourth grade – the year I was a student in Mrs Duncan’s class at Wharton Elementary School in Nashville. For the first time, I wasn’t afraid to be smart, and she often stayed after school to work with me. I thought I would one day become a fourth-grade teacher.” Look how that turned out.   

Years later, producers surprised Oprah by bringing Mrs Duncan on as the guest on her show. “I hadn’t seen her since grade school, and suddenly, I’m reading the teleprompter: ‘Welcome, Mary Duncan.’ Mrs Duncan had a name! As a child, I hadn’t even considered that Mrs Duncan might have had a life beyond our class.”

What Oprah said has remained with me. For all that our teachers do for us, we waste no time to award them with epithets, often unfairly. We pass judgments without thinking of them as individuals. And we spare little thought for them, other than on Teachers’ Day maybe.  

What we are today is a culmination of what we’ve learnt by ourselves and what we’ve been taught. And all it really takes is one teacher, one person to believe in us. Like Oprah’s Mrs Duncan, I don’t know much about Mrs Menon. Other than the fact that she changed my life.